Some might miss the dancers and their nearly naked bodies spray-painted in gold. For others it will be the live samba music, inevitably driving enough to get those with two left feet onto the dance floor. And most have been missing founder Anna Maria de Souza since her death in 2007. But before the feathered headdresses and beaded bikinis are put away for good, the Brazilian Carnival Ball, Toronto’s longest-running – and most star-spangled – gala fundraiser will have one last hurrah on Sept. 15. As a single annual event, the ball is among Canada’s most successful, having raised more than $57-million over its history, each year for a different set of charities (this year’s beneficiaries are the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology and the De Souza Institute Foundation). Through what many describe as incomparable persistence and joie de vivre, Ms. de Souza persuaded Toronto’s power players and elite influencers that this was the single most important event on their social calendar. And for a long run, it was. Three days before the fifth anniversary of Ms. de Souza’s death, the ball that she began in a church basement 46 years ago will have its swan song.
The bloom years
In 1975, nearly a decade after her first carnival-themed get-together, Ms. de Souza staged her soirée in the Sutton Place Hotel on Bay Street. As it expanded, the ball flirted with various venues across Toronto – mostly hotels but also the Eaton Centre and the Granite Club – before landing at the Convention Centre in 1998.
My parents took me right at the beginning when I was still in school. My mother and father are Canadian but very much associated with Brazil and we had just come back from living there. There were 20 or 30 people, max, and mostly Brazilians in the basement of a Yorkdale restaurant. ... There were a bunch of balloons and some food. My parents brought the records.
Catherine Nugent, long-time chair and honourary chair and close friend of Ms. de Souza’s
In those early years, the Glitter Girls [a catchy name for the city's core socialites] worked their asses off. My year was the last time we made our own centrepieces. I had everyone in the city – babysitters and nannies – all making paper flowers. We needed two million flowers but we did it.
Janice O’Born, chair/co-chair 1996 and 2009; owner of Axispa
Ms. de Souza encouraged guests to dress in costume – and there was a core group (Catherine and David Nugent, Catherine and Rudy Bratty, Nancy Paul) that always did. Beyond the night itself, the Brazilian Ball also produced a glossy magazine filled with pages upon pages of revellers, helping to position the event as Toronto’s gold standard in galas.
In its day, it was the biggest and glitziest Hogtown event around. You saw politicians, bankers, captains of industry cheek-to-cheek with semi-naked Brazilian dancers, all in the name of charity.
Ivan Fecan, honorary chair, 2006
To me, it was always the epitome of a gala or what a ball would be. I think it just had that much of a reputation and that much clout and more and more people wanted to go. You can’t duplicate your first time at the Brazilian Ball; it just blows you away. People tell you about it, but when you get there, it’s better than what you’ve been told.
Heather Gotlieb, co-chair, 2006
It [was] half the fun, deciding what to dress up as. People were extraordinarily creative! One group came as a forest. These are called blocos – a reference to the thousands of people who would dress the same to parade down the avenue [in Rio].
The control centre
Each year brought a new beneficiary and new co-chairs as selected by Ms. de Souza. Many attribute this variety tothe Brazilian Ball’s success. Executive director Kathie Gayda and director of decor Luis de Castro have been among the ball’s few constants.